Friday, 11 February 2005

Militants aim to destroy Mideast truce

Friday, February 11, 2005


Ramallah, West Bank - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas fired three senior security commanders yesterday and sent a stern message to those trying to sabotage the Palestinian ceasefire with Israel, after militants fired a barrage of mortars at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli and U.S. officials praised Mr. Abbas for taking "an unprecedented step" in dismissing the three, members of former leader Yasser Arafat's old guard.

And both sides accused the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah of provoking the violence in order to disrupt the truce reached by Mr. Abbas and Israel's Ariel Sharon at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week.

"We know that orders have been issued from Lebanon for some parties to continue and not accept what happened [in Egypt]," one senior Palestinian official said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, who met both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas yesterday as part of a weeklong trip to the region, told reporters that he will deliver a warning of his own to the governments of Lebanon and its patron Syria when he visits those countries today.

"The attempts by extremists trying to prevent and derail this very important progress have to stop," Mr. Pettigrew said in French after meeting Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. "I am going to tell the Syrians and the Lebanese that if you really want to help the Palestinians, you must reinforce the authority and the credibility of president Abbas in his determination to follow this path."

A Hezbollah spokesman denied this week that the group is trying to disrupt the calm. But Wednesday night, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah called for Palestinians to continue fighting. And during Mr. Pettigrew's meeting with Mr. Abbas at the muqata compound in Ramallah, senior Palestinian officials said they know the Lebanese-based group is pushing Palestinian militants to continue their uprising.

The official said Hezbollah is spending big moneyinducing militant groups to continue the violence, including yesterday's attacks, in which 50 mortar bombs and rockets hit settlements in Gaza. There were no casualties in the violence, which officials said was carried out by the Hamas organization.

Palestinian officials said those fired included Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, public security chief for the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian Authority police chief Saeb al-Ajez; and Omar Ashour, commander of the security forces in the southern Gaza Strip. Six lower-ranking officials also lost their jobs.

Before Mr. Pettigrew left for Beirut, he told reporters yesterday that his meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders were very successful and constructive.

He said he has offered Canada's help in two key areas - border management and police training.

"We have developed in the last few years in North America, certainly on the Canadian side, great expertise in border management, where we had to accommodate security requirements of the United States post-Sept. 11, with a very fluid border where goods and people could cross," he said.

Perhaps the most unusual assistance Mr. Pettigrew handed to Palestinian officials was a gift of $750,000 from Canada's Jewish community, in the form of medical supplies for a children's hospital in the West Bank city of Hebron. The gift, funded by Walter Arbib of Toronto, was received enthusiastically by Mr. Abbas and his officials.

"We appreciate that gesture," deputy foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said. "It has more value than the monetary value because it's coming from our cousins, the Jewish community in Canada."

Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, who is travelling with the Foreign Minister as her party's foreign affairs critic, was effusive in her praise for Mr. Pettigrew's mission, which will have taken the delegation to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories by the time it ends Saturday.

"... I will say that I really applaud Pettigrew's conduct. I think he had really acquitted himself extremely well on behalf of Canada and I felt really quite pleased to be associated with his very skillful diplomacy," she said last night in a telephone interview.

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